A rusty 12-foot fence is all that separates the United States from Mexico in Nogales, Ariz. The barrier traces up and down the surrounding hills from east to west, marking a flimsy separation and an ironic separation in this city of 40,000, where there are 12 million border crossings each year. Residents, commerce and culture go back and forth daily between Arizona and the Mexican state of Sonora. Like much of southern Arizona, Nogales' economic survival depends on Mexican tourists and consumers, who spend nearly $4 billion in Arizona each year.
On a typical day in Nogales, the population quadruples in size. Approximately 60,000 people stream across the border to work or shop every day (the Mexican town of the same name, with 400,000 residents, dwarfs the U.S. city, population 20,000). Frequent crossers use "trusted traveler" cards to expedite crossing, making even grocery shopping worth a trip across for those living near the border.
These days, legal traffic from Mexico is dwindling over fear of Arizona's Senate Bill 1070, which requires police officers to check the citizenship status of anyone suspected of being an illegal immigrant. Gov. Janet Brewer signed it into law in April, a move supported by 70 percent of Arizonans.
However, some argued the law would encourage racial profiling. In late July, after a legal challenge by the U.S. Department of Justice, a U.S. district judge temporarily enjoined what she deemed the unconstitutional sections of the law.
Immediately after SB1070 passed, the Mexican government issued a travel alert, warning of "a negative political environment for all Mexican visitors" in Arizona. Mexican newspapers and radio stations labeled Arizona as xenophobic and Mexican-hating. For Mexicans, the subtext of SB1070 was "you're not welcome here." Unsurprisingly, many now avoid Arizona.
On a scorching August day, I walked across the border and through the dusty streets of Nogales, Sonora. Most of the locals I talked to no longer make regular trips to Arizona. Miguel, an accountant, used to drive to Arizona about once a week with his family to shop. But he hadn't been since March.
"They're going to ask me for my papers and waste my time. I don't want to be harassed," he told me.
SB1070 was disastrous for Nogales business owners like Bruce Bracker. "The day they signed the bill sales were down 50 percent, and since then I've been getting killed," he told me in early August. His family has been in the retail clothes trade since the 1920s, and nearly 80 percent of his business is from Mexican customers who cross legally. "Mexicans who can cross legally are not happy, and they're not coming to Arizona."
The adverse effects of SB1070 extend far beyond Nogales. Southern Arizona is the destination of an average of 4 million legal Mexican tourists per year, most coming to shop for products that are unavailable south of the border. Tucson sits about an hour north of Nogales on Interstate 19, and the short and scenic drive has made the city a popular destination among weekend and holiday travelers from Mexico. Tucson's myriad shopping centers, outlet malls, and casinos heavily target middle-class and upper-class Sonorans who in recent years were spending an estimated $1 million per day in Tucson alone.
These days, the mall parking lots and hotels around Tucson are far less busy. According to the Tucson Visitors Bureau and anecdotal evidence from Tucson businesses, tourism spending is down. Since April, several conferences have been canceled, and there were fewer bookings for the big Mexican holiday on Sept. 16, one of the busiest times of the year. Of course, some of the decrease is due to the recession. But the change since SB1070 is palpable. Mexicans who otherwise frequently came to Arizona to spend money are staying away.
Before SB1070, Mexican tourists accounted for nearly a quarter of tourism spending in the Grand Canyon State. So why might the governor knowingly alienate this market? Since Brewer's action enabled her to consolidate the Republican Party behind her before November's re-election vote, that's a good place to look for the answer.
Her chances at another term began to sour back in February 2010 after she voted for a controversial sales tax increase. Conservative groups rallied against the one-cent tax hike and dubbed the proposition the "Brewer Tax."
At that point, re-election seemed nearly impossible. "If she didn't sign 1070 she would have had zero chance to become the Republican governor," says Bruce Merrill, a professor emeritus of political science at Arizona State University.
In April, she signed the law, and Arizona voters responded forcefully. A week later, she jumped eight points ahead of her Democratic challenger, Terry Goddard, and by late July, her approval rating had nearly doubled from March figures.
On Aug. 24, Brewer easily won the Republican nomination, with 87 percent of the vote.
"We cannot delay while the destruction happening south of our international border creeps its way north," Brewer said in a speech after signing SB1070. The governor conflated Mexico's brutal drug violence with illegal immigration in Arizona, even though very little of the crime directly affects her state. All along the U.S.-Mexico border, immigration is a complex issue encompassing jobs, social services, and national security. In her justification of SB1070 though, Brewer raised the emotional pitch, and reduced the narrative to fear, violence and xenophobia.
While brutal drug-cartel-related murders are a daily occurrence in several Mexican cities, and while it's not fair to say crime doesn't cross frontiers, there's little evidence that the crime routinely makes its way across the border into Arizona
Crime in Arizona is at its lowest level in recent years. FBI statistics show a drop in crime from 2008 to 2009 in nearly every county in Arizona. The greater Phoenix area — which has been labeled "the kidnapping capital of the U.S." — had the most drastic decrease, registering 20 percent fewer incidents of violent crime over that period. These decreases are accentuated by the fact that Arizona's population grew by 600,000 between 2005 and 2008.
Fixation on "securing the border" comes as illegal immigration has been on the decline for the past few years. According to a Pew Center report, illegal immigration peaked in 2007. The 8 percent decrease since then is "the first significant reversal in the growth of this population over the past two decades."
In light of the report's findings, furor surrounding "anchor babies" seems ill-timed. Yet, amid a crippling recession and in an election year, immigration remains a hot-button issue. Measures similar to SB1070 are gaining popularity in other states.
After Utah state Rep. Stephen Sandstrom, a Republican, toured the border region with Arizona State Senator Russell Pearce, the author of SB 1070, Sandstrom vowed to initiate similar legislation in his state. For the five states that introduced anti-immigration bills this year — South Carolina, Minnesota, Pennsylvania, Michigan and Rhode Island — proximity to the border doesn't seem to be a factor. At one point during the summer, an additional 20 states were considering Arizona-style laws.